Christian Today Digest

October 2014

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Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material selected by the editor at Christian Today and were first published on recently.

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Mali Christians return to Church ruins

From “World” section

While the world’s attention is focused on the threat of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Christians in northern Mali have returned to their shattered communities after French forces wrested control back from Islamist groups.

Churches were desecrated and looted when the region fell under radical groups in 2012. French forces were able to take control but the reconstruction is slow and costly, and peace talks between the government and mainly Tuareg armed groups are still ongoing.

Dr Mohamed Ibrahim Yattara, president of the Baptist Church in northern Mali, told World Watch Monitor most Christians who fled the region had now returned to their homes but their churches are “in ruins”.

He said the church there has lost most of its buildings and valuable property, including vehicles. The damage done by the extremists has also affected the church’s work in the area of community provision. In Timbuktu, the church’s water project set up over a period of 20 years has been rendered unusable as most of the materials were stolen.

Dr Yattara said the government and international community are not helping the church rebuild and that they can only rely on the generosity of people of good will to “walk with us in these efforts of reconstruction”.

But he remains grateful that the church is at least still there and was not wiped out completely by the radical groups.

While Mali remains a difficult place for Christians - it was ranked No 7 on Open Doors’ 2013 World Watch List for persecution - Dr Yattara is determined that the churches will continue doing what they were called to do.

“We had this feeling that jihadists wanted to wipe out any trace of Christianity in the north of Mali. But God in his goodness has not allowed such an eventuality,” he said.

“The church is still there and most of the believers have returned, albeit in very difficult conditions, without external assistance or the financial resources needed in such circumstances.

“And despite such adversity we are determined to resume our ministries because after all, this northern Mali is ours. We have the right to freely exercise our faith and we are firmly committed to make this happen.”

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How to pray for ISIS

Some suggestions from Interserve’s Steve Bell

From “World” section

We should be praying and going after the worst of them in prayer. John 1 says that the law came by Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Grace for the attitude, and truth for standing up for what’s right. It’s that change that has to happen before we can do anything – before we can listen to the news with a better balance, let alone pray. The first thing to cross is the attitudinal hurdle – a grace and truth response opens us up to a more balanced approach to praying about evil.

If you want to pray that they would all perish, instead try praying for justice

It’s so easy to wish that every militant would be killed, leaving the Iraqi people free to rebuild their lives. But rather than pray for their deaths, perhaps instead ask for God’s will and justice to be done, trusting that his understanding is greater than ours.

If your instinct is to pray for military success, pray instead for peace

Pope Francis himself has suggested that military action against ISIS could be justified, but rather than focusing our prayer on further violence, petition instead for peace, reconciliation and stability.

Rather than only praying for Christians to be saved, pray also that members of ISIS would turn to God

How incredible it would be for radical Muslims to see the witness of the Iraqi Church, the testimony of persecuted Christians and encounter the living person of Jesus. Nothing is impossible.

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The Sex Slave Trade in Iraq

by Tearfund’s Katie Harrison

From “World” section

One of the hardest things about hearing people’s stories in Iraq of rape, persecution, violence and beating was knowing that these were the people who had got away.

The many families I met in the Kurdish region of Iraq who had fled shootings and the risk of sex slavery were just that – the ones who had fled.

A number of people in different cities – men, women, Christians, Muslims - told me of the systematic rounding up of women and girls; the rapid, enforced divorce of married women from their husbands; the ‘testing’ of single women to assess whether they’re considered to be a virgin; the colour-coding by clothing of married and single women; the selling in an open market with virgins commanding the highest price; and the hasty marriage ceremonies between buyer and the woman they’ve bought in order to justify his raping her.

And these are not just grown women. The youngest girl we heard of being taken for rape was three years old.

One Muslim man told me: “I don’t know where they found an imam to do the marriage ceremonies. No imam I know would do it. This is not being done in our name.”

Since January 2014, 1.8 million people in Iraq have left their homes. Those with financial and physical strength go far and they go fast. They take their passports, get on a plane and go to a different country.

It happens every time there’s fighting on this scale and people become displaced. Those with means leave before it gets worse. The most vulnerable people remain close to the area from which they came – whether they’re internally displaced in Iraq or crossing the border from Syria into Lebanon or Jordan.

They’re vulnerable for various reasons. Usually, we see families with disabled children, elderly relatives or large numbers of extended family travelling with them. They’re often financially less well-off than those who can travel further away, so they have lots of needs.

And then those who have cars, friends in other cities or in neighbouring countries, and have managed to hold on to their ID documents during the raids, will go. They manage to travel further than their more vulnerable neighbours.

But the journeys, even for those with cars, are hard.

One 45-year-old mother told me of lying on the floor of her car with her children as they listened to the bullets flying overhead. Opposing groups were shooting each other over the roof of her car. They made it to Erbil, where they now sleep on the floor of a church with 30 other families.

Compared to what they’ve escaped, their lives are relatively safe but in no way comfortable.

They need water, food, more permanent shelter and, very soon, a livelihood so that they can rebuild their lives and avoid becoming dependent on what little provision there is available to assist unemployed people.

They’re determined, resilient, grief-stricken and traumatised – all at the same time. But they’re forever grateful. They know they’re the ones who got away.

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The Communion that converts and feeds

Sara Miles and the City

From “Life” section

Sara Miles’ conversion came after wandering into a San Francisco city church and taking communion. The Food Pantry she founded in 2000 was an extension of that experience.

“The food pantry was explicitly modelled on what I had experienced in the Eucharist,” she told the Greenbelt festival in August, “so it’s not a social service programme. We don’t ask people for ID or to prove anything, because Jesus welcomes everyone.”

The Food Pantry feeds 400 families with food provided by local food banks and run mostly by volunteers, mostly from the city’s Mission District, an area known for its cultural, racial and economic diversity.

Miles talks about the group of volunteers that has formed around The Food Pantry based at St Gregory of Nyssa, the church where she dramatically met God when she was 46 years old, as being a ‘Eucharistic Community’. “They are almost all people who came to get food and still get food, but now help out,” she says. “They see St Gregory’s as their place, and they run it.”

Having had a profound supernatural experience of God during her first, almost accidental Communion (detailed in her book Take This Bread), Miles sees providing food to the poor as more than just “doing something ‘social servicey’,” and her sense of those involved with The Food Pantry being a “covenanted community” is expressed in the centrality of the altar at St Gregory’s. “That altar is the centre of everything,” she says. “We have communion on it, we have coffee hour on it. On Fridays we transform it into this gigantic free farmers market.”

The situation of St Gregory’s and The Food Pantry in the heart of a city have been far from incidental to Miles’ own faith. “One of the things is in San Francisco which was also a huge gift to me, is that nobody goes to church who doesn’t want to,” she says. “Nobody goes to church because their parents do and it’s just what you do. It’s so not done that if you go to church you actually probably mean it on some level.” Miles says that in a secular culture like San Francisco’s there is not much room for ‘going through the motions’ and that going to church is actually “countercultural”.

And while Miles’ background as an atheistic journalist means that many of her friends initially found her conversion odd, others, she says, knew that she was, at some level, looking for God. “People think it’s sort of odd, you know, a little kinky,” she says. “But I also think people are frequently hungry. And we’re living in a time where it’s not as if the secular project is wildly successful. Some people have made me their ‘chaplain’.”

Years after her conversion, after founding her Eucharistic community among the misfits and hungry of her city, Miles discovered that Gregory of Nyssa, whose name adorned her church, had written, in a way, of the connection between food and faith. “Gregory says that the way that we are most like God is in our desire: that God desires us and we desire God,” she says. “And that desire, that hunger, is what connects us to God. It’s beautiful.”

Beautiful, perhaps, as the opportunities God presents us in a city.

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10 keys to understanding the Gaza/Israel conflict

by David Robertson

From “World” section

Israel is a particularly emotive issue triggering strong reactions, demonstrations and calls for action. It has become almost a shibboleth issue to determine where you are at on the left/right political plumb line. So let’s take some of the key questions that arise in order to help us in understanding.

1) What is the conflict about? Two groups of people who are both claiming that the land of Israel/Palestine belongs to them. Basically the Palestinians who are generally supported by the Arab nations and the Jews who are supported to a significant extent by the Americans.

2) Who are Hamas? Hamas were formed in 1987 and arose out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Fatah were the main political grouping for the Palestinians but in an astonishing election result in 2006 Hamas took control. There was a bitter civil war between Fatah and Hamas that resulted in Hamas taking control of Gaza and Fatah control of the West Bank. Fatah are an Islamic group.

3) Who are Israel? The modern nation state of Israel came out of the Zionist movement of the 19th Century and the Balfour Declaration by the British government in 1917. The persecution of the Jews throughout history in Europe came to a head in the Holocaust when over six million European Jews were killed. In 1947 the United Nations approved the idea of two separate states – a Jewish one in their ancient homeland and a Palestinian one. In 1948 the state of Israel was established. Immediately the Arab nations tried to destroy it, they failed. The same thing happened in 1967 with the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Each time, against all the odds, the tiny nation of Jewish people emerged victorious. But at considerable cost to the Palestinians who found themselves at the centre of a war which cost them dearly.

4) Why do the people in Gaza suffer so much? Because there are 1.9 million people squashed into an area 25 miles long and five miles wide and three of their borders are controlled by Israel. The fourth with Egypt is also blocked. Israel wants to prevent rockets and arms getting to Hamas and so they have instigated a blockade that also impoverishes the whole community.

5) Are the Israelis targeting civilians? Are Hamas using civilians as human shields? When Israel retaliates to rockets fired from Hamas, invariably this is into densely populated civilian areas, which results in considerable causalities. Some claim that Hamas are deliberately putting rockets into populated areas, but it is difficult to see what else they could do. Gaza is tiny and would they really put them into an open field where the vastly superior Israelis air force would quickly destroy them. It is also clear that Israel is not trying to have as many civilian casualties as possible – if Israel wanted to, with their vastly superior armour, they could wipe out the whole of Gaza. If Israel were indiscriminately targeting civilians, why are three times as many young men killed as women?

6) What do the Israelis want? What do Hamas want? Israel wants survival and secure borders in a region where they perceive that the vast majority want to wipe them out. If 1,500 rockets fell on the area between Edinburgh and Glasgow in one week, you could understand their fears! Likewise most of the Palestinians want a home and a land they could call their own. But Hamas are different. Why? It is their stated policy to wipe out not Israel but the Jews – this is from their 1988 charter which they still uphold – Article 7: “the time will come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry, O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him”. They want “the banner of Allah to be raised over every inch of Palestine”.

7) Why are so many people so anti-Israel? There is a deep-rooted ingrained hatred of Israel and the Jews. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of anti-Semitic crimes in Europe and the UK are perpetrated by Muslims. Mehdi Hasan, a Muslim writer, is clear: “It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace.” I can think of one ‘liberal’ Muslim friend who told me that she would not go and see Schindler’s List with me, because it was ‘Jewish propaganda’.

But there is also a strong political right wing and left wing anti-Jewish tradition in European society. People will tell you they just care about innocent children being murdered and they are just boycotting a theatre group because they are part of that. But if that were true why are people not on the streets protesting about the 200,000 killed in Syria, or the hundreds being killed in Ukraine, or the massacres of Christians in Iraq? Why not boycott China, Russia, Sudan, etc.? The reason is a bit complicated but is combined with the Islamic hatred of Israel, and traditional antisemitism that has been prevalent in Europe for hundreds of years. People say they don’t hate the Jews – they just hate Israel – but Israel is a Jewish state and therefore it is very easy to feed antisemitism. Can you imagine what would happen if George Galloway said that he wanted a ‘French Free Zone’, or an ‘Islamic Free Zone’? But an Israeli Free Zone somehow seems acceptable!

8) What does the Bible say? It is amazing to me how some branches of the Church are so certain about this. Often you will get some mainstream churches making pronouncements against Israel but keeping silent about Hamas. That just does not make sense. Equally you will get others – especially the more zealous Christian Zionists – who regard anything other than full-hearted endorsement of anything Israel does as equivalent to denial of the divinity of Christ. The situation is surely more complex than that. Personally I think that the return of the Jews to Israel is something to do with God! But I don’t buy into the more extreme Christian Zionism. I do feel that there is still a special place for the Jews. But that they, like the Jews of the first Century (Paul, Peter, James, John, Mary etc.) still need Jesus as their saviour. I cannot identify the current nation state of Israel with the Judah of the Old Testament, but neither can I believe that God has forgotten his people.

9) What solutions could there be? The extremes are obvious. Either get rid of the Palestinian state, or get rid of the Jewish state. Neither is an option for any humane Christian. What about the two state solution? We are trying that but given the ideology of Hamas, and the fears of Israel that is going to be hard to achieve. Many Western liberals are too optimistic. They think if only we got rid of Israel’s weapons then everything would be fine. It won’t. In fact no matter which angle you take on it there does not appear to be a solution. I think that is mainly because this is a human situation – full of sin and sorrow. It needs a saviour.

10) So what can we do? Firstly pray for the peace of Israel. And Gaza. Secondly we must proclaim and live the good news to both Jews and Muslims. We must not hate nor blame either but instead point them, as our fellow sinners to Christ. Thirdly we can offer as much real aid and support, as we do weapons, to those caught up in this crisis. And please can we stop supplying the hate merchants with more ammunition!

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